[Another from the archives; wrote it about five years ago. This is one of the few pieces I’ve ever pulled from an editor due to lack of editorial skill.]
As you head east from Tehachapi toward the unglamorous railroad town of Mojave, the first windmills come into view with the first Joshua trees, at Sand Canyon Road. Farther along, there are more: white, wispy battalions astride the Garlock Fault. If you’ve ever stepped out of your car in Mojave, you know why the windmills were put here. There is no wind as strong, as constant, as the western Mojave wind. If your hat goes aloft, it will be in Barstow within the hour.
At the base of the Sierra Nevada twenty-six miles north of Mojave, the wind is even stronger. At my campsite in Red Rock Canyon State Park, it’s hard to open the windward door of my truck. The box of crackers I place on the picnic table falls over, then slides off the table, then rolls into a copse of Joshua trees.
I open the box, put it on the table with the open end downwind, then put a five pound rock on top of it. The box moves somewhat more slowly. Just outside my campsite, a raven searches for crumbs.
I come to this place fairly often, a day’s drive from the Bay Area. Aside from the wind, it’s pleasant enough. Eerie cliffs of Pleistocene lakebed sediment watch over the far side of the campground. A shallow box canyon into the cliffs shelters a handful of favored campsites, always full by the time I arrive. Just as well. I don’t have to talk to anyone unless I choose to. And my fire, now sending horizontal sparks forty feet downwind over the sparse mineral soil, won’t burn holes in anyone’s styrofoam coolers.
The raven hops onto the table, eyeing the crackers. I wave a hand: he croaks a low protest and glides to the ground.
I’ve put it off long enough. I close the cracker box, pull the logs apart to quell the flames for a moment, and walk down to the ranger station to call my wife. There’s no phone at the ranger station, just a faded sign: “Closest telephone at Jawbone Canyon Store, seven miles south on Route 14.” Halfway back to the campsite, I see the wind has stoked my fire. Horizontal orange tongues lick the soil six feet from the metal grill, just reaching my camping gear. I move the gear box upwind.
If I’m going to drive to Jawbone Canyon, I’ll need to put the fire out or find someone to keep an eye on it. Putting it out would mean relighting it later, and it took me fifteen minutes to light in the first place, in daylight. By the time I get back from the store, there won’t be any twilight left. But who’ll watch the fire for me? I steel my nerve to ask the folks in the RVs across the way.
The raven hops back up onto the picnic table. He looks at me, neck feathers ruffling in the wind. “Grraw,” he observes.
“Yeah, I should have made the call before I lit it,” I reply.
The bird preens, then walks over to the crackers. He extracts a cracker, then flutters over to the fire, perching on the gear box. “Grraw,” he says around the cracker in his beak. “Grraw.”
“Thanks!” I reply, and grab the keys to the truck.
I consider myself a hardheaded rationalist. I do sometimes talk to trees and rocks and beasts of the field, but I don’t usually think of them as answering. I still find it hard to explain my momentary lapse. All I can say is that I got to the Jawbone Canyon Store, called Becky, and realized mid-conversation that I’d left a campfire under the supervision of a goddamn bird. I must have hit 120 heading back to the park, hoping my fire hadn’t blackened too large a swath of the desert.
Ravens don’t like to be pigeonholed. They’re songbirds that should be raptors. They’re a native bird species that native bird advocates will sometimes shoot on sight. They’re irretrievably wild animals that do just fine in cities. They’re scavengers who are finicky about what they eat. They’re amoral reproductive opportunists who mate for life and mourn when widowed. They’re more like humans than we sometimes care to admit.
This unpredictability is generally taken as a sign of intelligence, and ravens are in fact considered the most intelligent species in an intelligent family, the corvids. Jays, magpies, jackdaws and crows have been known to perform prodigious feats of thinking. One California corvid, the Clark’s nutcracker, lives on pine nuts, available only for a few weeks each year. A Clark’s nutcracker will cache hundreds, if not thousands of pine nuts, remembering the location of each cache for more than a year. And this is one of the raven’s slower cousins.
Unsurprisingly, clever Raven has earned a place in mythologies all around the world. My favorites are from the Pacific Northwest, where Raven plays the Trickster pretty much the way Coyote does in the Southwest. Some translators stress the “just-so” aspects of the tales, presumably for audiences raised on Aesop’s fables. Others recount those stories as plot points in a longer narrative, which may or may not have a moral. One Tlingit Raven story resembles a Michener novel as rewritten by Günter Grass. The tricks Raven plays are almost beside the point: the narrative is the important thing. If you possess the right cultural cues, you’ll recognize sub-rosa homilies about proper behavior. If you’re an outsider, it’s just literature.
For many Pacific Northwest people, Raven is Prometheus, who taught humans how to use fire. Or who dropped a firebrand onto the rocks, so that now all we need do to warm ourselves is strike rocks together and shelter the resulting spark in kindling. Or who stole the sun and placed it in the center of the sky, a fire to warm the world. Though trickster figures are generally mistrusted, a wide vein of gratitude runs through the Raven stories. Some people routinely left food on the beach for Raven’s local representatives, without making much of it — as if a whole culture agreed that publicly thanking a trickster is risky business. A private gesture repays the debt without the risk of feeding Raven’s ego.
When I get back to the campground, I see no firetrucks sending angry rotating light into the sky. No helicopters disgorge water onto the countryside, no television crews report bravely on the conflagration. I don’t see so much as a ranger with a citation book and a fire extinguisher. My stupidity has gone unpunished. I even still have a campfire, blazing merrily and horizontally in the dark. Pulling in, I see a raven dancing around the fire. I have no way of knowing whether it’s the same one. It flies off over the cliffs as I get out of the truck. A few hours later, I rouse myself long enough to see a bright comet smeared across the northeastern sky.
I suppose, eating breakfast as the sun comes up over the El Paso Range, that I should get down on my knees and thank the lords of sheer luck and random chance that last night’s fire will never make the news. Of all the stupid things I’ve done, this is certainly the most recent. One of these days, my lack of attention and my hubris will gang up on me and teach me a lesson, and I’ll flip my truck on the freeway or break the heart of someone I love or get a job selling insurance.
I pack the truck, roll up the sleeping bag, tighten the camp stove valves, put the shovel away.
There are a few crackers left. The rest have been broken into crumbs, scattered with last night’s ashes. I pick up one of the larger pieces. It’s moist around the edges. I collect what crumbs I can and toss them into the trash, grumbling aloud. “I’ll have to get some more now, dammit, drag myself into that supermarket in Ridgecrest. I think I ate two crackers out of this box, and how many are left? Six? Damn bird.”
That should be enough griping. I leave the rest of the crackers in a small pile at the base of the Joshua trees, and then I drive away.